DEAR GOD I AM SO SORRY! I never meant for this hiatus to last so long; even now I'm having a hard time finding time to write after months of putting off writing. But now, I only have eight days of school left and then I'm free!

To let you guys know that I am not dead and neither is this story, here is a little teaser. It's not long, so it's a 'part 1', but it's something to let you know this story has not concluded yet.

Expect more in the next week or so!

Betty Ross saunters through the dimly lit hall with long, even strides, her hardened eyes set dead ahead. Hidden security cameras mark her every move, but she pays them no mind. She's doing nothing wrong at the moment.

She approaches a large, broad door; at one side is a scanner, which she approaches. Placing her hand upon the pad, she remains still while her prints are taken. Then, she leans in and lets her eyes suffer the same treatment. When she leans away she moves towards the door, ready to walk forward, when suddenly a computerized voice speaks up.


Betty freezes, but it is a momentary hesitation in movement which gives away nothing. But she is stalling; the longer she waits, the more suspicious it seems. None of the plans had mentioned any passwords, none of Ross's documents or emails had mentioned this particular safeguard. How can she move forward?

In her panic, she did not immediately hear someone approaching from behind, which is why she startles when a hand comes upon her shoulder.

"New around here?" The stranger, a short and somewhat stocky woman with voluminous black hair, smiles at her. "Don't worry, everybody freaks out about the password thing. It's one of many of the director's new ideas since that first base was attacked." Patting her shoulder, the stranger approaches the door, speaks the password, and the doors open. The only show of surprise on Betty's face is her slightly widened eyes.

The woman holds out a hand. "Name's Darcy. You're Betty Ross, right?" Ross nods slowly, analyzing this newcomer slowly. "Jane told me all about you. Dr. Foster, that is. She's the one you're here for, right?"

"That's right. And please, call me Betty." She makes a show of smiling and that seems to please Darcy.

"Sure. This way." She nods her head towards the door, and Betty falls into place beside her as they begin to walk. "This whole thing's freaky, isn't it?"

Betty keeps her expression cool. "Freaky?"

Darcy shrugs and looks around, as if gesturing to their surroundings. "This whole base and everything. We were brought here to be kept safe months ago during the invasion, but the invasion's over and we're still here." Snorting, Darcy takes a turn towards one hallway and Betty follows. "They keep telling us it's for our own good. But come on, Jane's area of expertise isn't exactly what they're looking for here, and I'm a college undergrad, what the hell can I do?" Sighing exasperatedly, Darcy let her eyes roll up and then towards Betty. The woman realizes she is being looked to for support.

"I see what you mean. But, tell me… what exactly do they have Dr. Foster doing here?"

"Beats me." Darcy admits. "They won't let me see her, most of the time, and when they do she always talks like people are listening. Screw them, I don't give a shit who's listening!" She shouts the last part at the ceiling, glowering at it as she did. Betty fought the urge to scowl at the foolish, blustering action.

"You don't trust them?"

"Not really."

Schooling her features, Betty turns ahead. "I don't blame you. I can only imagine a few reasons why they would do this to you, and well… they aren't pretty."

Confusion clouds Darcy's face. "What are you thinking?"

Betty pretended to appear apprehensive, before divulging her secret. "Did you know that the Asgardian Thor had returned to Earth?" By the sudden widening of her eyes, the answer appeared to be no. "I see. They didn't tell you – do you think they told Jane?"

"No – no way, I'd know if they did." Darcy seems sure, so Betty left it alone. "Why wouldn't they tell us?"

"Seems to me there's only one reason to keep the close friends of Thor in a government building, under close guard, with no contact with the outside." Betty speaks slowly; trying to make sure the point is made. Then, she turns to Darcy. "They want leverage."

"Wait, you're saying… we're blackmail for Thor?" Darcy stops where she is, mouth agape. Betty slows to a halt.

"Or for the entire Avengers team. It seems to me the government would be itching for such a thing, given the attack on that army base a few weeks ago."

"Attack?" Darcy approaches quickly, eyes narrowing. "Who attacked?"

"The Avengers did – they disagreed quite vehemently with some of the military's more secretive experiments and weren't afraid to let them know it. I'm afraid that will only work once. Now, the long arm of the law is sure to find something to hold over the Avengers head's to make them toe the line."

"And you think we're it?" Darcy whispers. Betty does her best to look nervous, unsure. Inside she is smug.

"I can't say for sure… but that's what it looks like." The woman's face hardens and her eyes flare with anger.

"Thanks." She mutters, fists clenching. "Look, um… no offence, but I have to go." She storms off, leaving Betty behind with a smirk on her lips.

Mission accomplished. If the two women were as smart and resourceful as reports made them seem, they would be gone from the base within the week, leaving 'Betty Ross' with fewer heads looking over her shoulders. Straightening her back, the woman turns and goes to the office she was meant to report to, feeling a sense of pride and almost elation at her so far successes. If all went well, she'd soon be on her way to discovering what this project really is, and Betty Ross's role in it.

Phil Coulson almost feels like himself again. It's not due to the fact that he can sit up by himself now, or that he's strong enough to stay awake longer. It has everything to do with his renewed friendship with the agents who knew him best.

"So what's the plan?" Clint said from his place beside the man. They were meandering through the halls of the school, Phil moving his chair by running his hands over the wheels, Clint sauntering by his side.


"For once you get out of here." Clint shrugged and glanced ahead. "There's no way you're returning to S.H.I.E.L.D. when they'll just order you back to the bastards who had you in the first place. And you can't stay here unless you want to be driven out of your mind by small children." Clint recoiled slightly as two such children ran past him, laughing and playing.

Clint is being ridiculously overprotective, and nothing could make Phil happier. For the first time since he awoke, his friend seems to truly be returning to himself. His eyes are brighter, his pose less haggard, his mood no longer eternally trapped in the morose. It will take more time than this for the wounds to truly mend, but this gives him hope.

Clint might think he's hiding it, but Coulson knows him too well. It doesn't help that it's always been his job to know things other people want to keep hidden. Guilt pours out Clint's skin like sweat, permeates the air around him, shows itself in the way the archer never meets anyone's eyes. His friend is saturated in pain and the only thing that's given him any relief is seeing Coulson recover.

Coulson has been glad for his help; ever since he showed up in the hospital the first time, Clint's been spending more and more time with him. Each subsequent meeting has improved their dynamic, and Coulson's health. Soon, he hopes to be independent again, so that he might return the favor for his friend. It's been long coming, and Phil knows that no one, not even Natasha, could truly pull back the masks and repair the hidden damage beneath. Not like Phil could.

He can imagine the thoughts racing through that head, and the pain hidden in that heart, and the only things that make Coulson feel better about it is the memory of Loki being flung back by that gun on the helicarrier.

"I think I'll have to call upon Tony Stark's compassion for a while." Coulson shrugged. "What am I saying? That's a terrible idea."

"Probably right, but at least you'll have me and Natasha around." Clint smirked at him, and Coulson smiled back.

"I suppose that's enough incentive to deal with Stark."

That's not the only incentive. The past few weeks have endeared him to quite a few of the Avengers, especially the Captain. The agent's face grew red at the memory. Not only had Captain America helped save his life and rescue him from his prison, but he'd immediately leapt out of bed and… and…!

Unconsciously, his hand drifts up to his pocket, and he falls into memory. The first week of his return, perhaps only a day after he'd awakened, he'd been surprised by two visitors.

None of the Avengers had been due to see him then, so he was doubly surprised to see Thor and the Captain standing at his bedside, covered in mud and filth and who knew what else, looking relatively tired but mostly upbeat for some reason. Confusion had marred the agent's face even as Steve Rogers beamed at him. Having your hero look at you like you were a hero was certainly something.

"I, uh…" The Captain grew nervous then, but held his hand out. "These are yours. I'm really sorry about their condition, I – I didn't know." That seemed to be all he could say, as he grew red and clammed up just then.

Trembling hands reached out to take the cards in Steve's palm, cards Coulson knew all too well. His cards – covered in blood and dirt and, was that mildew!? The agent had been shaking in abject horror and building rage, when suddenly his eyes had trailed down to the bottom corner. There, at the fraying edges, he saw see something that sent his mood spiraling back upwards and made him gasp.

The Captain's signature, on every single beaten card. That made them worth more than any pristine set out there, mildew or no.

In real time, Coulson smiles and trails his hand over where the cards are kept in his jacket, his sole possessions in this world. Everything he used to own, all his clothes and bank accounts and his home, are gone; passed on to relatives or the state or otherwise divvied out as his will had instructed.

Given that he can't walk up to his loved ones, say "Honey, I'm home" and take his things back, he'll have to start over. The idea is more than overwhelming, given that he doesn't even own the clothes on his back. All he has is a set of signed Captain America trading cards, tarnished and half ruined, much like how he feels himself. If the Captain were around he imagines the man might make a corny comparison about the value of the cards as a metaphor for his own worth; though he's not around to say it, Coulson still hears it in his head, and can't help but chuckle.

Yes, he feels worthless and ruined and desperately afraid, but it's not over yet. He's lost his job, his family and friends, his life, but he's not completely lost.

"Hey?" Clint's voice cuts through his reverie, concerned. "You still with me?"

Coulson glances up, smiles, and in a move that seems to surprise the archer, reaches out and takes his hand. "Yeah." He states with a nod. "I'm right here."

And this time, he's not going anywhere.

Pepper Potts prides herself on always being on time. It was one of those things she strove for in an effort to make up for Tony's faults, back in the good ole days when they were constantly working together. She won't admit it aloud, but she misses those days.

The point is, Pepper is never late, but if her conniving Russian girlfriend gets her way, that streak is about to break.

"Natasha, I have to go!"

Her hands are handcuff to the bed frame; not in any explicit, kinky sort of way. They'd tried it once and found it was too similar to Natasha's work for her to enjoy, and that Pepper was simply very vanilla. No, the handcuffs are just there to keep Pepper from going to work.

"I don't think you do." Natasha's sly voice echoes out from the bathroom, unconcerned. Pepper keeps pulling on the cuffs, for all the good it does. "According to your records, you have more than a month's leave built up and I think it's time you use it."

With one last frustrated tug Pepper grimaces and slumps against the bed. "You can't just decide I'm on vacation!"

Natasha walks in, two cups of coffee in hand, shrugs and gives her girlfriend an uncaring look. "Why not? Left to your own devices, you never will."

Pepper has to admit that's true. While she's tried to learn from Tony's mistakes, overworking seems to be something engrained in her that she can't let go. All those years of keeping up with her workload and Mr. Stark's have left their mark.

Still, she can't give up without a good fight. "Natasha…" Her whine does her little good; Natasha raises an eyebrow at Pepper's pouty lips.

"Are you going to be good or must I keep you locked up?"

Damn. "Fine." Grimacing she nods. "Fine. Have it your way, you… you…" She is trying to think of insults, but soft lips are tracing the line of her jaw as a hand goes up to her cuffs and unlocks them.

"Vacations can be quite… charming." Natasha whispers into her ear. "I promise I'll show you their merits very thoroughly."

Suddenly a few weeks off doesn't sound so bad.

It's been two weeks since Betty Ross left and Tony has been both thoroughly relieved and absolutely terrified.

He doesn't think Bruce has figured it out, or at least he desperately hopes so. Bruce hasn't known Tony long enough to tell when he's head over heels, idiotically in love. Sadly, there is someone currently staying in the Avengers Mansion who does know Tony well enough, and is not afraid to laugh at him for it.

"Banner?" Rhodey asks incredulously. "Of all the people on the team, you go for Banner?"

Tony is not embarrassed. Tony Stark does not do embarrassed. The heat in his cheeks is leftover from working in the sweltering mess of the garage, and that's it. He storms away from his friend without giving him a response. Rhodey, undeterred, follows with a big grin on his face. He's still chuckling about it and that part of Tony that won't let him not respond to provocation finally escapes his mouth.

"Yeah, Banner, what's the big deal?" It's not his most eloquent reply in the world, but he honestly doesn't care enough at the moment. He needs coffee, and maybe a replacement best friend. Or at least a staircase to shove him down.

"It's just so out of character." Rhodey states, and Tony will give him that, it really is. "Agent Romanov I would guess you'd be all over – and given the inevitable rejection which would have occurred, I would have seen you trying Thor next maybe. He's a traditionally handsome, vapid jock type. You used to eat people like him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

"Okay, one – Thor's not an idiot." Tony actually stops and spins around, pointing at Rhodey and feeling more vehemence in his tone than he'd expected. He's… surprised. This sudden surge of protectiveness feels out of place on his tongue. "Secondly, I resent the idea that all of my conquests were vapid jocks. Some of them were vapid cheerleaders."

"Nevertheless, you've never tried dating anyone who could match you intellectually besides Pepper, which I still don't understand why that didn't work!" This is an old argument Tony doesn't want to get into, so he sighs and returns to stalking towards the kitchen. Rhodey follows. "You two did so well together! There was UST flying through the air for years –"

"UST, what the fuck, Rhodey?"

"Unresolved Sexual Tension, yes, it was there!"

"You sound like a teenager talking about Supernatural." They turn into the kitchen side by side, still bickering, but Tony honestly hasn't felt this relaxed in weeks. He's been on edge ever since his own realization, and his edginess has made his new friends wary. Rhodey, so used to Tony's moods, doesn't give two shits if Tony's on edge or not.

"Listen, Tone, I'm not trying to be a dick or anything…" Sighing, Rhodey runs a hand over his forehead. "I'm just trying to understand. This is huge. I mean, you and Pepper just ended it a few months ago and that was honestly the first time you ever tried having a real relationship. Are you sure you're ready to try again?"

His chest feels so tight it's like he's not breathing. His hand pauses midair as he'd been pouring coffee, and he only just notices when the cup is about to overflow. "Yeah. That's why I'm not telling him."

Suddenly the conversation is not as light-hearted as it had been. "Tony…" Rhodey moves closer, a hand coming to his friend's shoulder. "I'm not saying you shouldn't try. Just… warning you it won't be easy."

Tony resists the urge to pull away because he knows Rhodey knows his tricks and will just follow him. "I can't, Rhodey. I can't screw this up." He's being surprisingly candid and he blames the exhaustion and the fact that he's been dying to say these words to someone, anyone, for weeks. "He needs somebody bad, Rhodes, somebody he can rely on and that's sure as fuck not me." Tony's the one who relies on other people to keep him together, to keep him whole. He can't be relied on, not for anything.

Rhodey's hand squeezes his shoulder then falls away, and nothing more is said. Tony returns to his coffee, taking his first few sips and letting himself stew in the darkness his thoughts have become. When he turns around, Rhodey's gone.